A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
The ten-part, 18-hour documentary series directed by the Oscar winning chronicler of modern times, Ken Burns, tells the epic story of the Vietnam War as it has never before been told on film.
The Vietnam War features the oral histories of more than 60 witnesses, including many Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as well as Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides. Their testimonies are moving, believable and diverse (Americans and Vietnamese share their stories and personal recollections), and although they don’t tell of the same experiences, their combined oral histories show us a more detailed and rounded war than we’ve ever seen before.
“I think the Vietnam War is arguably the most important event of the second half of the 20th century,” says Ken Burns. “It’s a defining moment.”
“It’s an extraordinarily important period in [US] history and it is very much unresolved,” adds co-director Lynn Novick. “We felt it was important to take a look at the story of the war, what happened and why. And perhaps most important – why is it such a difficult subject for us to talk about as a country?”
Ten years in the making, the series brings the war and the chaotic epoch it encompassed viscerally to life, to tell the story of the most divisive period in US 20th century history. “The film represents 45 years of scholarship that adds on to the experiences of the service members,” says Burns.
“Obviously,” he adds, “War is humanity at its worst but it also paradoxically brings out the best and we’ve not neglected to point out those positive aspects, those heroic aspects, at the same time as we delve into a war that many Americans would rather ignore.”
Written by Geoffrey C. Ward, produced by Sarah Botstein, Novick and Burns, it includes rarely seen, digitally re-mastered archive footage from sources around the globe, photographs taken by some of the most celebrated photojournalists of the 20th century, historic television broadcasts, evocative home movies, revelatory audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.
"We set out to take a fresh look at this very complicated and divisive story through the eyes of the people who lived through it,” says Novak, “and to hear from as many different people with as many different experiences and perspectives that we could practically embrace.”
“We interviewed close to 100 people,” she adds. “One of the tragedies of the Vietnam War is that America got involved in a conflict in a country far away that we didn’t really understand. We didn’t understand our allies or our enemies. We as filmmakers did not want to make that same mistake. I spent a lot of time in Vietnam getting to know people who lived through the war there and hearing from civilians and soldiers. What we found was that the war is as complicated and unresolved and as difficult to talk about for them on all sides as it is for us.
The series reflects the cultural revolutions of the 1960s on American home front, and features nearly 80 iconic rock and roll musical recordings from many of the greatest artists of the era, and original music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as the Silk Road Ensemble featuring Yo-Yo Ma.
Does the Vietnam War still matter today? “To understand Vietnam is to arm yourself in the best sort of way for how to deal with our present incredibly fraught moments. It couldn’t be more relevant than it is today,” says Ken.
What the press are saying:
“Ken Burns makes a complex story immediately comprehensible” – Guardian
“It seems to me the best film I have ever seen… The Vietnam War isn’t just about the war but the consequences it had for Americans” – London Review of Books
“Arguably, the most important Ken Burns effect is not a visual trick but the refocusing of history on first-person stories.” – New York Times
“A knock-you-sideways experience… Burns and Novick have pulled off a monumental achievement” – Vanity Fair
Summary of episodes
After a long and brutal war, Vietnamese revolutionaries led by Ho Chi Minh end French colonial occupation. With the Cold War intensifying, Vietnam is divided in two at Geneva. The Communists are in the North, while America supports Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime in the South.
Episode Two: Riding the Tiger (1961–1963)
President Kennedy and his advisors wrestle with how deeply to get involved in South Vietnam. As a communist insurgency grows, a grave political crisis unfolds.
Episode Three: Hell Come to Earth (Jan 1964 – Dec 1965)
With South Vietnam in chaos, hardliners in Hanoi seize the initiative and send combat troops to the South, accelerating the insurgency. Fearing Saigon’s collapse, President Johnson escalates America’s military commitment.
Episode Four: Doubt (Jan 1966 – June 1967)
Defying American airpower, North Vietnamese troops storm the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the South, while Saigon struggles to “pacify the countryside”. An anti-war movement is growing in the US as hundreds of thousands of troops realise they’re facing a war like no other.
Episode Five: This Is What We Do (July-Dec 1967)
American casualties and enemy body counts mount as Marines face deadly North Vietnamese ambushes and Army units chase an elusive enemy in the Central Highlands. The Johnson Administration reassures the American public that victory is in sight.
Episode Six: Things Fall Apart (Jan 1968 – June 1968)
On the eve of the Tet holiday, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launch surprise attacks throughout the South. The losses are devastating, casting grave doubt on Johnson’s promises about “light at the end of the tunnel”.
Episode Seven: Chasing Ghosts (June 1968 – May 1969)
Public support for the war declines, and those facing the draft in the US face difficult decisions and wrenching moral choices. There are demonstrations in the streets and Richard Nixon wins the presidency. In Vietnam, the war goes on and soldiers on all sides witness terrible savagery and unflinching courage.
Episode Eight: A Sea of Fire (April 1969 – May 1970)
With morale plummeting in Vietnam, President Nixon begins withdrawing US troops. News breaks of an unthinkable massacre committed by American soldiers; while an incursion into Cambodia reignites anti-war protests with tragic consequences.
Episode Nine: Fratricide (May 1970 – March 1973)
South Vietnamese forces fighting on their own in Laos suffer a terrible defeat. Massive U.S. airpower makes the difference in halting an unprecedented North Vietnamese offensive. After being re-elected in a landslide, Nixon announces Hanoi has agreed to a peace deal. American prisoners of war will finally come home - to a bitterly divided country.
Episode Ten: The Weight of Memory (March 1973 onward)
While the Watergate scandal rivets Americans’ attention and forces President Nixon to resign, the Vietnamese continue to savage one another in a brutal civil war. When hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese troops pour into the South, Saigon descends rapidly into chaos and collapses. For the next 40 years, Americans and Vietnamese from all sides search for healing and reconciliation.
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